Picking next US President: A show in two acts

With February’s Iowa caucus and New Hampshire primary rapidly approaching, the 2016 US election is entering its second act.

Republican candidates (L-R) Governor John Kasich, former HP CEO Carly Fiorina, Senator Marco Rubio, Dr. Ben Carson, businessman Donald Trump, Senator Ted Cruz, former Governor Jeb Bush, Governor Chris Christie and Senator Rand Paul pose before the start of the Republican presidential debate (photo credit: JPOST STAFF,REUTERS)
Republican candidates (L-R) Governor John Kasich, former HP CEO Carly Fiorina, Senator Marco Rubio, Dr. Ben Carson, businessman Donald Trump, Senator Ted Cruz, former Governor Jeb Bush, Governor Chris Christie and Senator Rand Paul pose before the start of the Republican presidential debate
(photo credit: JPOST STAFF,REUTERS)
The first act of the 2016 US presidential race was dominated by the surprising rise of two political outsiders.
For Republicans, it was the surge of Donald Trump. Originally dismissed as a “summer fling,” Trump remained steadfast and increased his lead in the polls, leading nationally by as much as twice as his closest rival.
For Democrats, it was the surprising emergence of Bernie Sanders as a viable candidate. A self-described socialist, Sen. Sanders was originally dismissed as irrelevant, but was surprisingly able to consolidate the progressive base and significant components of the Obama coalition to poll 30 to 35 percent nationally, and to raise donations from more than two million Americans.
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The impact of the surge of those two is not limited to their stand in the early polls. Their most significant influence may be in setting the themes and affecting the paths to victory in the campaign’s second act.
One such theme is the outright rebellion against old guard – against “the man.” While every election cycle produces anti-establishment sentiments, in this election this has been the key motif. Such sentiments translated into enthusiasm that led to the surge of both Trump and Sanders.
The first act might have also provided a preview of how the November presidential election could be won: not necessarily from the center, but from the wings.
Conventional wisdom has long been that winning elections is about convincing the crucial swing voters in the middle.
But early indications might suggest otherwise for 2016. For one, the pool of swing voters has significantly shrunk over the last decade.
In the latter half of the 20th century, ideological differences between both parties were relatively small. There was consensus on most key issues of the day: whether it be winning the cold war, embracing the merits of capitalism or the war in Afghanistan, both parties mostly adhered to the American narrative.
But in the last decade the two parties grew further apart, with ideology driving a wedge between Democrats and Republicans.
This was augmented by social networks and the information revolution.
As a result, by now, most Americans have clear views on the key issues of the day: the size of government, entitlements, health care, civil liberties, America’s standing in the world, overseas involvement.
Such views translate to higher predisposition toward a candidate in the general election and diminish the pool of swing voters.
As the opportunity to acquire voters from the center declines, the opportunity to acquire them from the parties’ own base remains strong. That is due to the low turnout in US presidential elections, ranging from 50% to 60% over the last few decades.
The ones who stay at home do not do so due to lack of preference. These are not swing voters; if “forced” to vote, they are likely to know who they would vote for.
But they stay at home on election day either due to lack of enthusiasm, laziness or otherwise lack of focus on the task of voting.
Turnout has historically been particularly low with Democrat-prone voters such as African-Americans (45 to 50%) and young, disenfranchised, anti-establishment voters. That changed in 2008 and 2012, when those audiences rallied behind President Barack Obama with an African-American turnout of 67 to 69%.
One of the big questions of the 2016 election is if Hillary Clinton will be able to retain those numbers, or if they will revert to their historic low numbers.
For the first group, African Americans (85% of whom have traditionally voted for the Democratic candidate), there is room for optimism for Clinton. That is primarily since the higher turnout is not due only to enthusiasm for Obama, but also to investment in voter registration, awareness and organization (the uptrend started in 2004, four years before Obama). In addition, the popularity of both Bill Clinton (called the “first black president”), and Hillary Clinton in the African-American community remains high.
But the second group – progressives and young disenfranchised anti-establishment voters – remains an enigma and a challenge for her. Poll questions of “do you intend to vote in the general election” are nearly irrelevant a year in advance. Changes in mood, like weather patterns, are hard to predict.
This group, some of whom are alumni or sympathizers of the “Occupy Wall Street” movement, view Clinton with suspicion. Her path to victory in the presidential election is dependent on them coming out to vote, not a trivial task given her close association with Wall Street.
From a narrative point of view, Clinton’s challenge is to ascertain the right degree of daylight that she should place between herself and Obama, the standard- bearer for that segment of the Democratic base.
This is especially tricky, given that some of Obama’s most perceived failures are in foreign policy, keeping in mind that Clinton was secretary of state: the withdrawal from Iraq that led to the emergence of the Islamic State; the fall of American weapons to Islamic State; the “lead from behind” approach in Libya; the perceived erosion of American credibility; the abandonment of allies, such as Hosni Mubarak in Egypt; and rifts with Benjamin Netanyahu in Israel could prove problematic for Clinton.
Her challenge on those issues would be to fend off the attacks from Republicans while not over-blaming the president and risking alienating the Obama coalition.
The surprise ascent of Sanders, the star of the first act of the Democratic primary, further complicated matters. Through capturing the progressive wing of the Democratic party, Sanders expanded his reach and created a movement.
This is a double-edged sword for Clinton.
On one hand, the emergence of Sanders could be helpful. The unification and institutionalization of the progressive and the anti-establishment audience under Sen. Sanders can help deliver this much-needed group of Democrats in the general election and entice voters who might otherwise not be engaged.
Sanders’ success is good news for Clinton as long as the race remains relatively amicable and she maintains her comfortable lead. But if the senator persists beyond Iowa and feels he has a chance of winning the nomination, he might choose to turn negative. That could be the nightmare scenario for Clinton: a tit-for-tat civil war against Sanders.
This would put a large portion of Hillary Clinton’s voters and foot soldiers on the other side for a prolonged period of time. Worse, such civil war would inevitably augment her image as “the man” or as a representative of “Wall Street,” which might lead those progressive and anti-establishment voters to stay at home in the general election.
Assuming Clinton will prevail in the primaries, on the day of her clinching the nomination, she will need Sanders more than Sanders will need her. While an endorsement is inevitable, the question is how enthusiastic it would be. Similarly, it is unclear how strong an endorsement Obama will give.
This is why a plausible Republican strategy for the election would be drawing a wedge between Clinton and the base.
This is easier in this election due to the power of super PACs and social networks.
Such super PACs might do what Clinton might have wanted to do herself had this been a swing-vote election: make her Republican-friendly. This means fleshing out a mantra such as “Hillary voted for Iraq; Hillary is a neo-conservative; Hillary is DC; Investment Bankers for Hillary.”
Painting Clinton as white and as corporate as possible could be the Republican’s big hope for a win.
As for the Republicans, there is no doubt that Trump was the star of the first act of the 2016 election cycle. Not just in dominating the polls, but also in setting the tone and themes of the Republican primary. If Sanders embodies the authentic, anti-establishment sentiment for the Democrats, Trump has captured that same sentiment for Republicans.
The big question remains if he can carry it into the second act. Can he translate the early poll success into votes and delegates? In spite of his astonishing poll numbers, this remains doubtful. While Trump’s support comes from various audiences, his base is of blue-collar workers.
In most polls, he does not pass the 20% mark with college-educated voters, who compose the plurality of the Republican electorate.
As the second act of the election turns into state-by-state primaries and caucuses, the machine, organization and army of surrogates becomes more important.
That might be the point where Trump is at risk of turning into that summer, fall and winter fling.
Indeed, Trump runs against the rule of thumb of “you date the one you want and marry the one you should.” Early indication of support does not necessarily translate into votes when the day of judgment arrives, especially in a fragmented race. The mass audiences typically start to focus only as voting day nears.
Just as Sanders might turn out to be the vehicle that captures and then delivers the progressive and anti-establishment Democrats to Clinton, it might turn out that Trump is similarly good news for Republicans: expanding the coalition and enthusing the base.
Accused of demagoguery and of making remarks that are severely disturbing to many, Trump was able to bring back a sentiment to Republican voters that was long lacking: a Reagan-like “shining city on a hill” feeling.
From his slogan of “Make America great again” to his rhetoric of “winning,” Trump hit a chord with many Republicans.
This comes in sharp contrast to the “lead from behind” and negation of American exceptionalism that was perceived by many Republicans to be Obama’s approach.
Another aspect of Trump’s rise that goes beyond his own candidacy is being a passive king-maker and king-taker of the Republican field.
Much can be said about the rise and fall (and potential comeback?) of Gov. Jeb Bush, the early favorite. A significant contribution to Bush’s fall can be attributed to Trump, who drew the contrast in rhetoric (“low energy”), and in narrative (anti- establishment vs establishment).
Bush might have had a unique opportunity this election, since his likely opponent is Hillary Clinton, therefore neutralizing the nepotism, establishment and fatigue arguments that would otherwise have been leveled at him by Democrats.
Given the reappearance of national security and threat of terrorism as key primary themes, Bush can still reemerge as the “responsible adult” in the field. The New Hampshire primary can be unpredictable, and Bush has the money and organization to capitalize on a strong showing in New Hampshire in subsequent states.
Others have the potential to surprise in Iowa or New Hampshire (keeping in mind both contests are still a month away), most notably Gov. Chris Christie, who won the endorsement of the New Hampshire Register and is trending up.
Putting such surprises aside, the Republican Party seems to be bracing itself for the most likely battle of the second act: The match-up between Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio.
Both 45 years old (similar to the age that Bill Clinton and Barack Obama were when running), both of Latino background, both first-term senators running for their seat as Tea Party candidates (Rubio later turned toward the center).
In a bizarre turn of events, in a Cruz-Rubio matchup, it is the Republicans who could emerge as the young anti-establishment party, the new generation taking power from the old-guard, especially in a Democratic primary between 68-year-old Clinton and 74-year-old Sanders.
With Cruz and Rubio dominating the Republican race, it would be difficult for the Democrats to paint Republicans as the party of the rich. Cruz and Rubio both come from humble backgrounds, while Clinton is wealthy and associated with Wall Street.
Similarly, while Cruz’s and Rubio’s Latino background may not be sufficient to poach large components of the Latino vote away from the Democrats, it would rob the Democrats of their ability to paint the Republicans as the party of golf-playing Brooks Brothers white people (as they did with Mitt Romney).
Cruz’s and Rubio’s youth and wonkish command of the issues strip the Democrats from painting them as old and detached (as they attempted with John McCain).
Given the dynamics of the first act, it seems that Ted Cruz currently has the broadest path to victory. He is consolidating the evangelical base, has cash on hand, deep funding sources and broad organization (such as an operation in all 99 Iowa counties). Cruz also has high discipline and consistency of message.
Most importantly, he is best positioned to capture the voters of departing candidates, an inevitability that would occur shortly after Iowa and New Hampshire.
Given the fragmented field in this race, such capture could be the key to winning the nomination.
The grand prize, of course, is Trump’s supporters, should he fall back or withdraw.
Like Trump, Cruz has taken on the Republican establishment. Cruz, too, is a straight shooter with strong talk on terrorism and immigration. And while the other candidates were subjected to Trump’s insults, Cruz was spared (“He is just fine,” Trump intoned at a recent debate).
The perceived alliance makes Cruz best positioned to be the recipient of Trump’s voters. Trump bought them the drinks, Cruz gets to take them home.
Similarly, Cruz is best positioned to capture supporters of other candidates once they withdraw. As the leading evangelical candidate, Cruz is positioned to capture Dr. Ben Carson’s evangelical supporters, and as an outsider, he is well positioned with both Dr. Carson’s and Carly Fiorina’s sympathizers. Having strong libertarian credentials, such as his vote on the USA Freedom Act, Cruz is natural second choice for many of Rand Paul’s voters.
Trump’s extremism has made Cruz look less frightening to Democrats, and on a relative basis, even digestible, making it more difficult to energize the base against him. Cruz is a graduate of Harvard, his wife is an investment banker from California – a Harvard graduate with an MBA.
Similarly, Cruz engages with his protesters.
Such was the case when actress Ellen Page confronted him on gay rights during a Cruz Iowa event. When Code Pink protesters crashed his Washington Iran rally, Cruz invited them on stage and seemed to even impress the protesters.
Just like with Cruz, it would be hard for the Democrats to rally the base against Rubio. A son of a bartender and a maid, Rubio’s life story appeals to much of the Democratic base. He is highly relatable and even liked by a broad spectrum of Democrats.
Rubio is perceived to be most electable of the Republicans. With appeal to nearly all parts of the Republican Party – moderates, neo-conservatives and Tea Partiers – Rubio also fits the “outsider” theme of the election. A one-term senator who chose not to run for a second term, Rubio can draw sharp contrast with the Washington “political class.” He can legitimately make this general election into America versus Washington.
Given the focus on national security, terrorism and the complexity of foreign policy, Rubio’s credentials and confident command of the issues will make him a formidable opponent against Clinton’s experience and gravitas.
And so, the second act of this election might produce a role reversal between the Democrats and the Republicans: Insiders vs outsiders and on the flip-side, experience vs youth.
The role reversal would likely be amplified by Clinton likely flagging the “two for the price of one” package. That could be an effective argument given the growing attention to the war on terrorism and national security. Getting that 3 a.m. call, Clinton will not need to go far to garner valuable advice.
The Republicans might attempt to counter it by painting such a package as “two insiders for the price of one” or “the people of yesterday dealing with the issues of tomorrow.” Hence, setting the stage for a spectacular election showdown.
How will this role reversal and base-driven election play out? Nobody knows.
It would likely mean that the elections will be about the issues and ideology.
This election presents a clear choice for America. In doing so, it is a celebration of American democracy, and a powerful demonstration of the strength and vitality of the American people.